In Plain Sight:
The identity of the Twin Pillars of Göbekli Tepe
Thomas T. Lawson
At the throats of the monumental anthropomorphic paired central pillars of Enclosure D, the oldest Enclosure at Göbekli Tepe, are pictograms that both identify their respective pillars and connect them with the archaeology of Neolithic southwest Asia on the eve of the inception of agriculture. On one pillar is a bucranium; on the other, at the throat and on the belt, are two differing images of the moon, ancient symbol of the female. The bucranium and, in varying iterations, the two moon/woman symbols populate special purpose structures erected over many hundreds of years throughout Göbekli Tepe. They are likely the only pictograms at the site, and their specialized character, their ubiquity, and the fact that they relate the pillars as a pair bespeak their centrality. Taken as identifying markers for the pillars, the pictograms associate Göbekli Tepe with woman/bull iconography then extant in Upper Mesopotamia and supply a link in Jaques Cauvin’s theory of a psycho-cultural shift that leads in a direct line of symbolic development to the ensuing Bronze Age Great Mother/Son-Lover religions.
The concept of a Mother Goddess at the dawn of humanity as we know it caught the popular mind, and it has some scholarly credentials. Its relation to the revolution in symbology in southwest Asia in the last ten thousand years of the Paleolithic (the Epipaleolithic) and the Neolithic has had its ups and downs. Today it does not find a wide acceptance within the archaeological community. The author, in connection with work on a book on the evolution of mind, has come upon discoveries at the famous archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in south central Turkey that puts this question in a new light. What follows is an outgrowth of that work.
The first to be erected of sets of paired pillars that dominate successive structures at Göbekli Tepe bear insignia that mark them as representing respectively a female and a bull, the same figures known to have been contemporaneously present at Mureybet in northern Syria and later at Çatalhöyük in south central Turkey. In order to get a sense of the nature and significance of these new findings, some background is necessary. This period in the Levant was characterized by a cultural transition from “small, mobile forager bands to networks of large permanent communities” (Watkins 2016: 91). It bridges the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary and is marked by the first appearance of agriculture (Boyd and Richerson 2005: 360). The excavators of three of the most important Neolithic sites in Upper Mesopotamia, James Mellaart at Çatalhöyük (Cauvin 2000: 32), Jaques Cauvin at Mureybet (Cauvin 2000), and Klaus Schmidt at Göbekli Tepe (Dietrich et al. 2012) all subscribed to the idea of a symbolic mother goddess as at the heart of a marked cultural change that had a precipitating role in the advent of agriculture.
This contrasts with the foundational understanding as to the causes of agriculture developed by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe. In the 1920’s Childe propounded the view that the inception of agriculture and what he termed the Neolithic Revolution was a response by hunter-gatherers to the exigencies of the Younger Dryas. His central tenet that climatic, demographic, and economic factors brought about the onset of subsistence farming proved highly durable (Watkins 2011: 30). In the 1950‘s American archaeologist Robert Braidwood faced head-on a problem with the Childe hypothesis. With the retreating of the ice of the last Ice Age, climatic and botanical conditions
suitable to agriculture had come into place in southwest Asia. The Natufian culture had exploited wild stands of grain in a settled way for thousands of years without developing and sustaining the means of planting and growing grain. To determine why the great step forward had not come sooner, Braidwood organized expeditions of archaeologists and associated natural scientists to go in quest of an answer, but without success. He came to the conclusion that it was not the environment, but something in the people themselves that had stood in the way, and was left to conclude, simply, that “culture was not ready” (Cauvin 2000: 66). The idea of an encounter with a metaphysical dimension embodied in a mother goddess failed to gain traction, and in 2011 archaeologist Trevor Watkins was able to observe that “most archaeologists writing on the Neolithic period in southwest Asia still . . . subscribe to the idea that the adoption of farming was a response demanded by the constraints imposed by the Younger Dryas phase on the availability of wild food resources” (Watkins 201: 30).
The Mythological perspective
I approach the subject from the standpoint of mythology. It is a subject that,
since Jaques Cauvin’s treatise of 1994 (Cauvin 2000), has not seemed much in the forefront of the address to the archaeology of Neolithic southwest Asia. Characterizations by mother goddess subscribers tend to have a religious coloration — and myth is a precursor to religion. The system of the woman and the bull in tandem can be taken as the first figures on the Levantine archaeological record to contain the seeds of a myth. What appears to have been crucial to the ultimate formation in them of a mythological narrative was the implicit suggestion of a relationship between the two figures. It would be a leap, however, to accept the pair as embodying at this point a mythic conception, to say nothing of a religious one. Cauvin suggests that it should be taken that they represented a “purely mental development” (Cauvin 2000: 32).
Myths record in concrete cultural artifacts the images and outlooks of the cultures that made them. Art can exist independently of narrative but is otherwise much like myth in this respect. Both speak to the images that moved an ancient culture in its bloom. Beginning at about 10,000 BC, anthropomorphic figures, taking the form of female statuettes, appear for the first time In the Levant. The Mureybet archaeological site excavated under Cauvin yielded eight female figurines from about 9500 BC, some in stone and some of baked clay, most with pronounced sexual markers. With the buildup
over time of similar iconography, this female figure unmistakably takes on the stamp of a goddess (Cauvin 2000: 22).
Bucrania, initially the skeletal head and horns of wild bull aurochs, had been
found symbolically placed in dwellings in the northern Levant from about 10,000 BC (Cauvin 2000: 28). The figures of the woman and the bull became associated and, once together, came to dominate the symbology of the northern Levant. They appeared in considerable elaboration later in Anatolia at Çatalhöyük. As they present themselves their myth may be foreshadowed, although there is still no warrant for finding in them evidence of myth as such. Such figures might well have an artistic and/or symbolic import without being integrated into a mythic narrative. Even so, at Çatalhöyük a story of sorts may be seen as in the making. The woman now takes on more clearly the aspect
of a goddess, and the bull is portrayed as secondary in status to her and also as her offspring (Cauvin 2000: 29). In this relational arrangement, there could be the elements of a story, the kernel of a myth, and this is signal for two reasons. First, Merlin Donald has demonstrated that the lives of virtually all anatomically modern Stone Age societies to be encountered were suffused with myth: “myth permeates and regulates daily life, channels perceptions, determines the significance of every object and event in life. Clothing, food, shelter, family — all receive their ‘meaning’ from myth” (1991 215). Second,
Cauvin made a compelling case that the mother goddess can be traced in art and myth forward from Çatalhöyük through the iconography of the pottery Halaf culture in Upper Mesopotamia to the Mother Goddess religions that were to flourish throughout Bronze Age Mesopotamia (2000).
“Special purpose buildings”, so called to avoid the bias of contemporary labels, are a particular form of architectural structure appearing in a number of the Neolithic settlements uncovered to date in the upper Euphrates region of southeastern Turkey. Central to more than a handful of these are T-shaped monoliths or pillars, set in pairs (Dietrich May 8, 2016). Far and away the most striking of the structures are those of Göbekli Tepe. Excavation is ongoing there, but indications are that there are up to twenty such structures, all apparently designed for ceremonial purposes. They are placed at several levels in the tell, and accordingly, represent construction in successive
periods of time. Curiously, a structure seems to have served for a time and then been intentionally covered over with debris, to be replaced by another. In the end, all was covered over and the site abandoned. Enclosure D, at the lowest and hence oldest level of the site, has been fully exposed. Its two central T-shaped pillars dominate the structure, there being smaller such pillars facing them in the surrounding circular walls. Stone benches spaced between these may suggest a convocation of some sort. The two central pillars stand at the daunting height of 18 feet. Hands and fingers and elements
of clothing are indicated in both. To the late Klaus Schmidt, the initial director of the excavation, “these abstracted, impersonal, but clearly anthropomorphic, T-shaped beings clearly belong to another, transcendent sphere” (Dietrich et al. 2012: 679).
Göbekli Tepe puts the sophistication of early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups at a very high level. There is an evident symbolic meaning behind what transpired there, and it is not just the structures themselves or such ritualistic activities as may have been associated with them that are symbolic. The builders and craftsmen were at pains to fashion a multitude of iconic images, some of true beauty, that are themselves of symbolic import. There is no clear suggestion that proceedings there had about them any-thing in the way of religious observance. That being said, the culture, whatever lay at its core, was at a point of transition. With agriculture in the offing and the arrival of a new
symbolical orientation, societies in the Levant and Anatolia were on the cusp of far-reaching cultural developments. They were moving in a new direction — or directions. In Anatolia the new symbolism is marked by paired monoliths in special purpose buildings; in the northern Levant there are clay “goddess” figurines and bucrania; and to the south, goddess figures only (Cauvin, 2000). Although this symbology suggests a new cultural orientation, there is no assurance that it was everywhere the same one. Agriculture in a short time was to take hold and spread. Various cultural threads could have collectively been pointing in that direction, or it could be that the diffusion of farming
simply engulfed cultural impulses pointing in other directions. Regardless, humanity seems to have been verging on the time in history when the religious impulse begins to emerge.
The life and death continuum
It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the progress of the human mind from the dark recesses of the mammalian brain forward into the Neolithic. It has been explored in the work of famed early anthropologists Tylor, Mauss, and Fraser, and, more recently, in that of Joseph Campbell (Campbell 1959). From them, we may derive that the earliest evidence of the human imagination to be extracted from the historical and ethnographic record suggests a form of thought cast in a magical spiritual milieu, in which an essential element was the continuum of life and death. Nature’s round of life
thriving upon death, that is to say, seems to have informed the human mind from time immemorial. Its references are abundant in the symbolism of Göbekli Tepe (Dietrich July 15, 2016).
In the two thousand years between Mureybet and Çatalhöyük at their primes, a marked progression in culture can be observed, from the crude depictions of the woman and the bull at Mureybet to their considerably enhanced and refined iterations at Çatalhöyük. As might be expected in the course of the development of a culture over such a time, its conception of its symbols and their relationship had taken on greater definition. Çatalhöyük provides an insight into the spiritual dimension of the life/death continuum. It is implicit in mural hunting scenes, but it is directly to be seen in the larger association
of the goddess with fecundity and with death. The famous statue of a seated female, flanked by and presiding over two potent feline predators, is to this point. And the idea is furthered and amplified in the assemblage of additional attributes of the goddess: potent and lethal carnivores, both bird and beast. A pair of female breasts, nurturance embodied, emerge from a wall, opened to reveal inside, dealers in death: “Both nipples are split apart and peering from within are the skulls of vultures, foxes, and weasels: motherhood itself violently defiled” (Mithen 2003: 93). Taken as a whole, with bucrania
prominently in the mix, the prevailing symbol may be seen as that of an all-embracing goddess, mother, and lady of the beasts. Cauvin notes that James Mellaart, the initial excavator of Çatalhöyük, “quite rightly underlined the funerary association of this imagery, the Mistress of Life also ruling the dead” (Cauvin 2000: 29).
The question to be put, then, is what signs are there, if any, that what transpired at Göbekli Tepe is expressive of a transition in the direction of a mother goddess and/or religion? Rather than proceeding directly, however, it is well first to consider whether the dominion of a goddess might be excluded altogether by developing archaeological analysis. I have indicated that there have long been serious reservations among the professionals in the field as to a connection between a mother goddess and the origins of agriculture and all that followed. This attitude represents a healthy reticence respecting
overarching approaches to complex and varied realities and, as well, a justifiable scholarly reluctance to find gods of any sort front and center at crucial stages of human development. Beyond a reaction to the mother goddess idea as lodged in the popular mind, there is also a growing sense that agriculture was not a singular development of a particular time and place, but rather the outgrowth of cultural processes in respect of which its emergence was in some ways secondary. To be sure, farming and herding shaped the future, but forces were in play at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary that
could have made them all but a forgone conclusion. Boyd and Richerson have concluded, for example, on the basis of ice core data and mathematical modeling, that climatic conditions were such that subsistence farming was unlikely to have occurred before the transition to the Holocene, but was all but inevitable after it (Boyd and Richerson 2005).
Against this general background, Watkins considered the possibility of a transition in the direction of a religious impulse at Göbekli Tepe, and he proposed a mechanism for it. He concluded that ritual practices may, in and of themselves, have been the conduit:
I suggest that the creation of the Göbekli Tepe monoliths and their erection intheir formal places within the enclosures should be understood as the ritual making of the gods. In this way, the rituals were literally make-believe, the actions that were the making of beliefs about the supernatural beings. Religious practice, in fact, was the creating of religious belief (Watkins 2015: 158).
It is on this broad understanding of the transitional nature of the Göbekli Tepe enterprise that I proceed.
Ian Hodder, successor to Mellaart and now long-time director of excavation at
Çatalhöyük, while respectful of his predecessor, is nevertheless dubious — working the site today with modern techniques and the benefit of thousands of artifacts uncovered since Mellaart’s time — as to any pronounced role in Çatalhöyük society of a fertility goddess. In 2011, he and Lynn Meskell published an influential article, which included generally approving comments from several other distinguished Middle East archaeologists.
The device of the piece is to compare the iconography of Çatalhöyük with that of Göbekli Tepe. Hodder and Meskell find three distinctive common themes in the imagery of the two sites. The themes are masculinity or phallocentrism; dangerous wild animals; and the piercing of flesh and the severing and removal of heads (Hodder and Meskell 2011: 236). These they find, taken collectively, to be inimical to notions of matriarchy
By contrast, from the perspective of what is known of earliest psychology and
myth, I see these themes as bearing directly on the life/death continuum and, in consequence,
on the idea of a mother goddess. I come first to Hodder and Meskell’s last
theme, the piercing of flesh and the removal of heads. Vultures, carrion-eaters that feed
directly on the flesh of the dead, seem to encapsulate its broader idea. We saw at
Çatalhöyük the vulture peering from torn, life-giving, breasts. Prominent vulture imagery
at Göbekli Tepe was seen by the excavation team there as illustrative of a preoccupation
with the round of life and death (Dietrich July 15, 2016). On one pillar a vulture balances
a severed head on its wing. This seems to connote the mediation of the soul —
through a living creature that survives on the dead — between the realms of the living
and the dead.
Sacred items associated with death appear to have been intentionally deposited
in special places at Göbekli Tepe. Notable in this respect are indications that the heads
of life-sized human male statues were removed and placed in significant spots, such as
at the foot of one of the central pillars. This appears to have been done in contemplation
of the final covering over of the entire structure (Dietrich May 5, 2016). Even this —
the burial of one structure, the product of a complex and energetic build-up, to be succeeded
by another — seems to replicate the cycle of life and death.
Hodder’s and Meskell’s second theme, dangerous wild animals, feeds likewise
into the life/death milieu. And, further, it affords a prime medium for the expression of
the first theme: masculinity or phallocentrism. Animal iconography abounds at both
sites. At Göbekli Tepe — depicted in etchings, reliefs, and sculptures — images of wild
creatures are rendered in some cases schematically and in others with impressive naturalism.
At first blush the profusion of the figures takes one away from life/death imagery,
as well as from the concept of a mother goddess. Frequently depicted are animals that
are pointedly male, with penises erect. Moreover, at least one of the human male statues
is likewise ithyphallic. With a plethora of erect phalluses on the scene there is little
room for doubt that it has to do with masculinity. Underscoring the point is the glaring
fact that no overt human female image of any sort has been found at Göbekli Tepe, with
the exception of a single carving on a stone slab, which was “not part of the original
decoration, but is a later added . . . graffito” (Notroff January 24, 2017), and is of a sort
hardly to be seen as reverencing womanhood. Hodder and Meskell accordingly find the
thrust of what was going on — the whole feel of the place — to be one of overwhelming
masculinity. This they take as being alien to a pervading maternal presence.
All the phalluses, however, obviously do relate directly to fertility. And part and
parcel of the symbolism attached to the mother goddess is the bull, a figure whose potent
masculinity can hardly be in doubt. The goddess, then, may be seen as the fecund
mother, with the bull, symbolically, as fructifier. At the same time, the association of the
goddess with the round of life and death has about it an implacable and remorseless
aspect. Hence, the “animality and phallic masculinity that downplays female
centrality” (2011: 236) found by Hodder and Meskell is a thing in no wise remote to her.
The preponderance of creatures of the deadly sort at Göbekli Tepe, be they mammalian,
avian, reptilian, or invertebrate, may be taken as in fact suggesting her presence
there. Ingenious portrayals display a very lively awareness of nature’s remorseless
round. Carnivores are shown as in distress, with spine and ribs protruding, as of a
predator searching for prey while itself at the point starvation, and wild boar, potential
prey for large predators yet themselves dangerous animals, are pointedly depicted as
lying dead (Dietrich July 15, 2016).
At Çatalhöyük the lethal and dangerous creatures identify themselves directly as
the retinue of the mother goddess. The enthroned female figure of that site presides
convincingly as goddess, but also as mistress of wild creatures and as psychopomp,
intermediary between the realms of the living and the dead. With her dangerous retinue
she is the symbol sine qua non of nature herself, in the equation balancing life and
There is a possibility that Göbekli Tepe was simply a male bastion, a thing apart
from the society as a whole. Perhaps the structures were for strictly male observances.
It is quite plausible that, on a number of grounds, women might have been excluded
from entry or participation. Contemporary practices around the world are a testament
the variety of ways in which this can be done. The enterprise at large, however, would
seem an enormous venture to have been brought off by just the men alone. More
probably it involved the entirety of a number of hunter-gatherer groups, inclusive of both
men and women. That the whole of the society was embraced was clearly the case at
Çatalhöyük, where the notable symbolic features were embedded in everyday village
life. And, while the nature of the two sites is different, the male-dominant orientation evident
in both probably fairly reflects how the two societies were structured in terms of
This would not in any way detract from the existence of a female deity at their
culture’s core, nor deny the goddess a pronounced presence in ritual life. It is amply
demonstrated that a female goddess can preside over an overwhelmingly male-dominated
society. It is in fact the case that in all mother goddess religions she presided
over such societies. As societies became larger, denser, and more complex, hierarchical
social structures supplanted hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, and in the course of this
transition religions arose. The resulting societies were patriarchally organized, yet
common to them throughout the Mesopotamian Bronze Age was the centrality of Great
Mother religions. It was not until the emergence of the monotheistic deities of Egypt
and Palestine that male gods fully asserted themselves.
It could very well have been the case that no central deity ever materialized at
Göbekli Tepe or even at Çatalhöyük. Yet we know that religion did in time develop in
Anatolia. We are now at the point of addressing the idea of a mother goddess deity at
Were the woman and the bull there?
Given that there is only one overt reference to woman at Göbekli Tepe and that
the bull appears there in company with a host of other animals, establishing a connection
between the symbology at Göbekli Tepe and the symbols of the woman and the bull
at Mureybet and Çatalhöyük would seem an unpromising prospect. I shall argue, however,
that, far from having a mere presence at Göbekli Tepe, the woman and the bull
were the abiding presence there. How might this be?
To begin with, the ground was fully prepared. If, as one may suppose, all who
approached one of the structures at Göbekli Tepe were thoroughly conversant with its
meaning beforehand, a presiding presence, attended by a sense of awe and reverence,
could hardly have been more imposingly invoked. A person of faith entering the cathedral
at Chartres does not need a depiction of Christ or the Virgin Mary to know what lies
at the heart of the edifice. It is quite possible, furthermore, that the want of specific definition
in the central pillars at Göbekli Tepe reflects a reluctance of a religious sort.
Strong strains of iconoclasm testify to a reflexive reticence toward the physical depiction
of divinity, as exemplified, for instance, by the prohibition of graven images in the Old
Testament second commandment.
Against this background must be considered the central pillars themselves.
There does not seem to have been found a predicate for scientific analysis as to why
there should have been two such figures in each enclosure — and not just at Göbekli
Tepe but also in other special purpose structures located in the vicinity. Be that as it
may, it cannot be ignored that what was at the center of things seems to have had a
dual aspect. In an apparently otherwise vacant field of coupled candidates for this pairing,
the woman and the bull would seem an obvious explanatory recourse, assuming
there were supporting evidence. There is such evidence, but there are also some concrete
obstacles to it. The pillars are broadly anthropomorphic in shape, and, in the fully
exposed Enclosure D both central pillars have rudimentary or stylized hands and arms
carved in low relief, and, as well, a belt and fox skin loincloth. Such a pillar could, without
gender-specific markings, stand for a woman, but certainly not for a bull. It is true
that in the subsequent mythology the bull was ultimately to take the form of a man as
the masculine element of the pair. However, the bull did not morph into a human in the
mythology until much later. There is, therefore, no basis on which to suppose that either
the bull or the woman might be represented as embodied in the pillars save in an abstract,
purely symbolic, way.
On the other hand, the pillars stand amidst scores of highly naturalistic and accurately
rendered animal and human depictions, yet they, themselves, are only vaguely
anthropomorphic. It may therefore indeed be that they represent divinities. In that
case, they might take a generalized human form, simply because that is the way gods
tend to be visualized. God does not make man in his own image; man conceives God
in the image of man, and it is likely that men were carving these stones.
Two small emblems
There are a number of bucrania at Göbekli Tepe. Signally, a bas-relief bucranium
is carved into one of the two central pillars of Enclosure D, the earliest enclosure. It is a
small figure, but it is saliently placed — at the neck or throat of the pillar. This leads one
to look to the companion pillar. As it happens, the positioning of the bucranium on the
one pillar directly corresponds to that of a similar relief carving at the throat of the other.
The figure there appears to combine basic forms that are mimicked in three letters. The
uppermost is the shape of capital “H”. A little bit below it is a circle “O”, and directly below
that, a “C”, lying on its back, as per Figure 1. I suggest that the last two images, the
“O” and the recumbent “C”, represent, respectively, the full and crescent phases of the
moon. The “C” and the “H” also appear on the belt of this pillar, with a pair of opposed
upright “C’s” cupping the “H” between them. Hence, two sets of moon symbols on the
pillar. The moon is a classic symbol of the feminine (Neumann 1955: 55). I venture
that, as with the “O” and the “C”, the “H” likewise represents a celestial figure. One
candidate might be the prominent constellation Orion. Orion can be visualized as an
“H”. A row of three bright stars, the readily identifiable “Orion’s belt”, would form the
crosspiece of the “H”, with the four other most brilliant stars in the constellation serving
in pairs as the uprights, forming two imaginary straight lines, roughly in parallel.
There have been a number of technical interpretations of celestial configurations
having to do with Göbekli Tepe, many with respect to the positioning of the structures
themselves in relation to heavenly events. These have support in the orientation of
Stonehenge and other Stone Age monuments in respect to the solstices. My finding the
“H” of the moon pillar to stand for Orion is of a different sort, but it does present a perplexity
having to do with the time and place of the observer. As it happens, owing to the
precession of the equinoxes, in 9000 BC Orion would have been visible in the southern
sky at Göbekli Tepe only from the belt up. This, need not necessarily, however, stand in
the way of the interpretation. The constellation would have been visible in full in southern
Mesopotamia. And there had come into play in the late Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic
high levels of intergroup communication and interchange over the whole of the
region: “This was a highly connected world. There were multiple channels of communication
along which a symbolic repertoire could have spread and been renewed” (Hodder
and Meskell, 2011, p. 259). It is therefore by no means implausible that the constellation
in full might have become a fixture in the human imagination throughout the re-
gion, even though Orion was visible in full in only part of it. And such a bright and distinctive
figure in the night sky as Orion would invite interpretation.
One today, looking up at the constellation Orion would not, without its being in
some way explained, readily conjure up the image of a mighty hunter. That the constellation
is seen as such, however, supplies a further ground for hanging onto the idea of
Orion: Orion is portrayed in myth as a hunting companion of Artemis, goddess of the
hunt, whose emblem was the crescent moon. Another notably bright star, Sirius, is directly
associated with Orion, appearing in a straight line from Orion’s belt. Called the
“Dog Star”, it is linked in legend with Orion, as one of his hunting dogs. As I view it, all
taken, these connections warrant a provisional treatment of the “H” as a symbol for Orion,
at least until a surer explanation might present itself.
The crescent of the moon newly rising before dawn is oriented toward the eastern
horizon from which it arises, as might be a bow bent to send an arrow back in that
direction. By contrast, the bow of the crescent of the waxing moon seen before sunset
points in the opposite direction, toward the western horizon into which it sinks. The two
“C’s” framing the “H” figure on the belt of the moon pillar would accurately replicate,
therefore, the positioning of an astral figure such as Orion — or another, the Milky Way,
for instance — as standing between the opposed crescents as they might be pondered
at break of day and at dusk by ancient scanners of the night sky.
The positioning of the devices at the necks of the bull and moon pillars suggests
emblems or insignia of some sort. It seems improbable that, matching each other in
size and position as they do, they might have been arbitrarily placed. They could have
been positioned as they are for purely symbolic reasons or, from their location, possibly
as representing pendants or perhaps pins holding together a garment closed at the
neck. Even if serving as ornaments, however, it is unlikely that the designs for this position
were randomly selected. Assuming their selection was in fact a calculated one, the
two devices can be taken as emblematic, and, if emblems, then identifying markers for
their respective pillars. Notroff of the excavation team conceives the two pictograms in
There are no eyes, no nose or mouth present, these pillar-statues remain bereft
of individuality on first glance — only to be distinguished, at least in the case of
the central pillars of Enclosure D for example, by peculiar symbols below their
heads — not unlike where one would wear necklaces. So, while still nameless to
us, the Neolithic people may well have recognized who it was depicted here towering
above them (2016, June 10).
Figures such as the “O”,”C”, and “H” are pictograms or ideograms: pictorial signs
for something of broader import; they might more recognizably be called, in the digital
age, icons. There seem to have been but few pictograms deployed at Göbekli Tepe.
Taking the bucranium as one such — something other than a literal animal representation
— puts it as a part of an exclusive, and quite definitive, set: corresponding symbols
of a sort rare at the site strategically placed on the paired pillars dominating the scene.
A straightforward interpretation of such symbols would be that they identify the personae
of the pillars as the bull and the woman, respectively: the bucranium pillar as the bull,
and the pillar with the moon-like symbols as the woman.
Curious about bucrania at Göbekli Tepe, I had an illuminating discussion on the
staff’s blog with Oliver Dietrich, a senior member of the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff. I
can think of no way of conveying the burden of that and succeeding blog conversations
more succinctly than by introducing them here, verbatim as reproduced from the blog,
with my further observations intervening as called for. Also unfolding here is the course
of my arriving at the conclusion I am putting forward. The actual online conversations
are in italics (Lawson, 2017, February 16).
02/16/2017 AT 17:43
Is that a bucranium top center on the porthole stone?
02/16/2017 AT 17:50
If you are referring to the image in the post about Enclosure B, yes, it is a bucranium.
The object in question is a large stone block fitted into a wall with a rectangular opening
at the bottom, possibly an entry portal. It is clearly an important element of Enclosure B.
Vertically aligned on the two sides of the opening are opposed foxes in low relief. Centered
above the opening, much larger, and dominating the block in more pronounced
relief, is the bucranium (Dietrich February 3, 2017). The whole set-up of the porthole
stone points to the bucranium as of special significance, at least for Enclosure B.
02/16/2017 AT 17:52
Thanks. I’ve noted three. Do they seem to abound?
02/16/2017 AT 17:59
There are around ten on pillars and stone slabs.
02/16/2017 AT 18:12
Thank you. This is very instructive. It strikes me that the bucrania(?) may serve
as emblems or insignia of a sort. In the photographs I don’t see other figures of
such a character, where the part stands for the whole. For example, there are
naturalistic depictions of bulls in addition to the bucrania. Am I on the wrong track
02/16/2017 AT 19:47
We have several more pictograms at GT, most notable are “H” and “C” shaped
symbols. Their meaning is open to discussion.
It is interesting to note that naturalistic depictions of aurochs show the animals’
bodies from the side, while the head is shown in frontal view, similar to the bucrania.
Obviously the head with the dangerous horns was of importance for the
Oliver recognizes that the bucranium on the pillar is a pictogram, treating it as of the
same order as the “H” and “C” pictograms. The view is reinforced by what would appear
to be a decidedly symbolic deployment of the bucranium as the dominating feature
of the porthole stone in Enclosure B. The much smaller, naturalistic fox figures on that
stone are, as a contrasting example, shown in full extension. Oliver brings up this
theme on his own in a later blog post, pointedly underscoring the significance of the pictogram
as a special category, deployed with intention.
Notably, the cattle head is one of the few depictions also transformed into a possible
ideogram at Göbekli Tepe. Bucrania can be found on several pillars and other elements
of architecture (like so-called porthole stones). It is obvious that the mode of representing
animals in Neolithic art is far from arbitrary (Dietrich April 3, 2017).
I return to our earlier conversation.
02/16/2017 AT 21:18
Oliver, that is a nice observation respecting the orientation of the head and horns of the
naturalistically depicted aurochs. This is a bit early for bull-leaping, so I hope the artists
didn’t too often encounter one head-on. It does seem clear, though, that the frontal aspect
is an object of fascination. I am grateful for your prompt and apt responses. Keep
up the good work. Tom
02/17/2017 AT 11:41
Unfortunately for them these encounters seem to have been very frequent indeed.
Aurochs comes second in the hunted fauna at Göbekli after gazelle.
02/17/2017 AT 17:58
Hearty fellows. Beef fed. Now I see your point about being galvanized by
the face-on view.
I had assumed that the hunters of Göbekli Tepe did not normally venture to take on the
bull aurochs. Cauvin had noted that the early villagers at Mureybet but rarely included
local cattle in their diet (Cauvin 2000: 28). If one were to face down a bull in the act of
trying to kill it, the image would tend to stick with one. The riveting effect of this view no
doubt added punch to the bucranium as a symbol.
02/17/2017 AT 18:56
Going back to pictographs: Jens in his 6/10/16, “Temples”, post suggests that the symbols
at the neck of the apparent garments on the central pillars of Enclosure D might
have served to identify the figures to Neolithic viewers. On one is a bucranium. On the
other there appears to be an H and something like an S just below it. Is that correct?
02/17/2017 AT 19:49
A circle and a lying ‘C’.
02/17/2017 AT 21:40
Thanks for clearing that up for me.
02/17/2017 AT 22:15
Sorry I’m so slow to come to this: possible full and crescent moon?
02/18/2017 AT 0:56
That is definitely a possibility. However there is a clear danger of misinterpretation.
These shapes may have that meaning in our cultural background,
they could have meant something completely different in the Neolithic.
There seems to be little doubt that the bucrania at Göbekli Tepe are symbols, if not of
the bull, then nevertheless bull symbols in some sense. Let’s focus therefore on the
“H”, the “O”, and the “C”. They appear as a set at the throat of the pillar paired with the
bull pillar in enclosure D. On the belt of that pillar the “C” and “H” motif also appears. I
have found both configurations to be drawn from the night sky and to represent the
moon. By contrast to this pillar, the belt of the bucranium pillar is blank.
As it happens, the “H” cupped by “C’s” replicates itself across the site. Here is a
later conversation from the Göbekli Tepe blog, this time with senior excavation team
member Notroff, about a photograph on the blog of a pillar in Enclosure C (Lawson,
2017, November 29).
11/29/2017 AT 0:39
Jens, might the figure on Pillar 28 be a different configuration of the pictograms
“C” and “H” on the belt of one of the central pillars of Enclosure D? These “letter”
pictograms also appear at the throat of that pillar. I note that there is also an inverted
“H” at the base of Pillar 28. Are there other instances where these pictograms
appear in association with each other?
11/29/2017 AT 11:52
this seems absolutely possible. There seem to be several variations of the “C”-
and “H”-like symbols repeatedly appearing in the site’s iconography. While they
of course cannot be really associated with the corresponding Latin letters, they
certainly may carry peculiar meaning in the contexts they are displayed. We are
currently looking into this question in the course of ongoing research.
On pillar 28 in Enclosure C, the “C” and the “H” pictograms appear in a new alignment.
The pillar is one of the smaller, circumferential pillars. An “H” spans the front of the
body of the pillar at its midpoint. Opposing “Cs’” are depicted straddling the crosspiece
of the “H” above and below as shown in Figure 2. At the base of the pillar, the “H” appears
alone, this time on its side.
To pull this together, there are bucrania along with what I am confident in calling
moon symbols spread across the site at Göbekli Tepe. We have discussed those in enclosures
B, C, and D, and it would seem that they are to be found elsewhere, as well.
They occur in various arrangements. The bucranium by itself holds a special position at
Enclosure B, and it crops up in as many as nine other places. I take it and moon symbols
to be the identifying devices for the central pillars of Enclosure D. The moon symbol
appears in two different forms on the mate to the bucranium pillar there. At the
throat of that pillar, it takes the form of the full and crescent phases of the moon, in association
with the “H” figure. And, on the belt of that pillar, what I see as the waxing and
waning stages of the crescent moon are carved, embracing the “H”. Finally, the crescent
moon symbol appears in conjunction with the “H” on one of the smaller pillars in
Enclosure C, and there the “H” also appears separately. Signally, combinations of crescent
“C’s” and the “H” appear repeatedly, in several variations, throughout the excavation
One fact is particularly striking. These three figures, the circle “O” with the “C”
and the “H”; the paired “C’s” with the “H”; and the bucranium, are quite possibly the only
pictograms on the entire site. And they are replicated throughout the site. This makes
the pictogram a unique feature among the hundreds of stone engravings, reliefs, statues,
and monuments peopling the structures at Göbekli Tepe. The specialized character
of the pictograms, their ubiquity, in various structures erected over a wide span of
years, and the fact that they relate the pillars to each other as a pair leaves no doubt as
to their special significance.
The iconography of the woman and the bull in combination was well established
at the time of Göbekli Tepe. Cauvin found the PPNA culture linking the woman and the
bull to have migrated north from the region of Mureybet in northern Syria into Anatolia.
From, there by his reckoning, it spread back south into the whole of the Levant as a part
of the PPNB culture, but bringing with it the particular element of the woman-bull combination.
Prior to that, in the central and southern Levant female figures stood alone; they
were not associated with bull imagery. The masculine principle embodied in the bull arrived
there only later as a part of an expansion of the culture that had taken hold in Upper
Mesopotamia and then worked its way back southward in the PPNB (Cauvin 2000).
The pictograms of Göbekli Tepe, definitive as they are, would all but certainly have been
a part of this cultural evolution.
In mythology their connections can be broadly sketched out as follows. The association
of the moon with the feminine at the deepest level rests in the facts that the
lunar cycle parallels the menstrual cycle and that lunar rhythms imply birth and renewal,
and hence motherhood. Moon symbolism in respect of the Great Mother goddess is to
be seen in the ancient and devoutly worshipped, Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, whose
emblem, I have said, was the crescent moon. (Artemis also, as pertinent to the broader
discussion, bore the sobriquet, Mistress of Animals.) An essential element of the Great
Mother myth is the figure of the Son-Lover, who stands proud, but is then cut down.
Campbell, who treated the Son-Lover extensively, took note of the comparison between
the paired horns of the bull and those of the crescent, or horned moon, the moon at the
point of disappearing from the night sky. He found the cult of the bull-god, precursor to
the Son-Lover, to have been “diffused, with the art of cattle-breeding itself, practically to
the ends of the earth” (Campbell 1959: 143). In her comprehensive compilation of the
Paleolithic and Neolithic iconography of the mother goddess, Marija Gimbutas underscored
the fact that sedentation in the Middle East and, as well, later on in Europe, was
accompanied by a profusion of bucrania and bull symbolism in many forms (1989: 265).
Finding the bucranium on the pillar in Enclosure D to be a symbol and not merely
an animal depiction is all but conclusive as to the presence in the pillars of both the
woman and the bull. To accept the bucranium in this way identifies its pillar with the
bull, in which case the woman becomes a prime candidate for the other pillar. Beyond
doubt the two pillars stand meaningfully in relation the one to the other. Given that the
pillars are paired, yet distinct, it follows that something on the second pillar has to correspond
to the bull of the bucranium pillar, and the moon-like markings on the companion
pillar pin that down. Therefore, accepted as moon, or feminine symbols, the pictograms
on the pillar adjoining the bucranium pillar specifically select the woman as paired with
the bull on the pillars, given that the two were already broadly established as a pair.
The force of the argument is then magnified by the fact that the symbol on either pillar,
standing alone, would be persuasive in identifying not only its pillar but also the companion
pillar. That the two together match up in a predictable way adds yet further reinforcement.
Some countering arguments bear consideration. The paired pillars might be taken
as two iterations of the same thing, doubled, perhaps, for effect. The markings of the
pillars, however, are pointedly dissimilar. Insofar as the differences between them apply
to the argument in train, this is to be seen not only in the differing insignia at the throats
of the two pillars but also in their belts. On the belt of the woman pillar there appears
the second moon symbol, the “C’s” cupping the “H”. There is no counterpart to this on
the belt of the bucranium pillar. Presumably the bucranium figure required no further
elaboration, and, accordingly, the belt of that pillar was left blank. It might be taken that
the dissimilarities in the two pillars connote a dual aspect of the same thing, but this is
no more than to say that the divinity implied in the pair was conceived as a unity, which
would actually serve to reinforce the Great Mother interpretation.
One might next question whether the pictograms on the mate to the bucranium
pillar are moon and hence female symbols. But in challenging that interpretation one is
left without alternatives. The place of the companion pillar must, all but by default, fall to
the woman. It is true that if the pictograms on the second pillar could be irrefutably
identified as something excluding the woman, something perhaps by way of a dispositive
explanation of the “H” part of the pictograms, then my argument would fall. Indeed
such an explanation would presumably resolve altogether any mystery surrounding the
Another counterargument might be that, while the two pillars respectively bear
the insignia of the woman and the bull, the pillars do not themselves represent the
woman and the bull. It would be difficult, however, to conceive of placing identifying
symbols on corresponding pillars to some other purpose. Moreover, the replication of
the bucrania and moon pictograms throughout the site, and especially the fact that
these seem to be the only pictograms of any sort on the site, speaks powerfully to the
importance to the builders of the two symbols. Given that they are so calculatedly
placed on the central pillars, one would reasonably conclude that this had been done to
designate the specific meaning of the pillars.
If it is taken as established that the paired pillars of Enclosure D represent the
woman and the bull, then the other dual pillars at Göbekli Tepe that were to follow must
represent them as well. And so also must the paired pillars of a number of other sites in
that part of Anatolia. The bucrania of Göbekli Tepe must, furthermore, be taken as akin
to the bucrania that had been a symbolic presence in northern Syria for 500 years and
were associated at Mureybet with the imagery of the woman. Accordingly the likelihood
is great that the pair reflected in the pillars at Göbekli Tepe is the same pair as that at
Mureybet — and at Çatalhöyük, and in later mythology. Hence an important link will
have been forged between the symbology of Göbekli Tepe and the Great Mother/Son-
Lover mythology that was in time to become the core of religion in Mesopotamia.
I do not propose that the presiding presence of the goddess and the bull at
Göbekli Tepe implies the presence of religion there, or even of myth. Rather I, much in
the vein of Watkins (2015), find there the process of myth in the making, the beginning
of the transition of human mentation from a realm inhabited by spirits to one of myth
formation. I see this therefore as putting the enterprise at Göbekli Tepe at the leading
edge of a new way of apprehending reality. The individual and the society were coming
to see themselves as distinct from, and in a worshipful relation to, new and potent entities.
In my view, this orientation would ultimately lead to the institution of religion, but
only after much development over thousands of years more to come.
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Copyright © Thomas T. Lawson